Saturday, June 7, 2014

How I Weathered the Tsunami

Although it was slightly edited afterwards, this post was actually written in Chile on April 1, the day of the large earthquake near Iquique.  Nothing about it is an April Fool’s joke, however.

 I was eating dinner this evening at a nice restaurant right on the ocean in Vina del Mar, Chile.  My Spanish is disgracefully non-existent, so when the waiter came up and said something to me, I thought at first that he was telling me the restaurant would be closing soon.  Then he repeated himself and I caught the words ‘tsunami’ and ‘alerta’.  Several things came into my mind immediately: the reality of tsunamis in Chile, the considerable distance from where I was to any really high ground, and the right thing to do if a tsunami were imminent: start running right away on my best guess at an efficient route to a reachable topographic highpoint. 

 I also felt something I have sometimes felt before in situations of unexpected physical danger. It is almost the opposite of panic, and is more like a thwarted denial. Not wanting to change my previous plans, but recognizing that denial could be fatal, I accept the duty to preserve my life with a sort of annoyed reluctance. If I put it into words, I might say, “How annoying that I will now have to run for my life when I had intended to spend the evening processing data… but it can’t be helped.”

 Anyway, having reached this point in my thoughts about half a second after hearing the word ‘tsunami’, I jumped to my feet so quickly that the chair grated loudly on the floor. The waiter and some of his nearby coworkers laughed at me, and told me to relax.  I remembered one other fact about tsunamis: there can be hours of warning.

 So I sat down and finished my dinner, since this was clearly what the waiters expected and what others in the restaurant were doing.  I was able to do this calmly, but I felt impatient to get back to my hotel (just across the street) and get the full story from a receptionist who spoke English.

 I paid and tipped and crossed the street – and learned that the warning was triggered by an earthquake near Iquique. I pictured this in my mind: Iquique is a city in far northern Chile, well over five hundred miles from here. The tsunami will have to propagate along the Chilean shoreline to reach us, being diffracted and weakened by the land all the way. It is very different from the scenario I imagined earlier: a seaborne warning system alerting us to a large undersea earthquake straight offshore from here.  So I do not expect a tsunami.

 However, as I write this, I am on the eighth floor terrace of my hotel, where I was told to go for safety. I am here only out of deference to the authorities. Besides being skeptical about the likelihood of any sort of tsunami tonight, I am convinced that if one did arrive that could flood my room on the sixth floor, it would also wash away the whole hotel.  But this will be a pretty good place from which to watch (and, of course, photograph) a tsunami, in the unlikely event that even a small one appears. And it’s a good place to write a blog post.  I’m going to wait until the warning interval expires to write the final paragraph, which will describe what the tsunami was like or else confirm that it never arrived.

 Epilogue: There was no tsunami, not even any noticeable change in the wave pattern on the beach.  This is what I expected, once I knew where the earthquake had been.  Amusingly, when I went to the same restaurant again the next night, about five different waiters there came by and made comforting or commiserating comments about how I had panicked the night before.  Of course, even in English I could not hope to communicate that I had only appeared to panic.  I just smiled and laughed with them at my last night’s behavior. The things that really can throw me into heart-pounding, hand-trembling panic are quite different: missed flights and sudden instrument failures, for example.

No comments:

Post a Comment